Home economics - American EducationThe study of a wide variety of topics relating to management of the home, the family and the home life of the individual. Taught to a lesser or greater degree from kindergarten through graduate school, home economics is usually divided into five broad areas of study: housing, foods and nutrition, clothing and textiles, human development and the family, and home management and family economics. Within these areas, topics may include the domestic arts, such as cooking, nutrition, housekeeping, needlework, handicrafts and hygiene; consumer education; child development; family relationships; clothing and textiles; interior design; and institutional management of restaurants, hotels, hospitals, schools and colleges, prisons and catering organizations.
Home economics as a course of study emerged from the domestic and ornamental arts curricula of girls’ academies in the early 19th century. Barred from men’s academies and colleges, young women were restricted to studying those skills that would serve them best as future wives and mothers. Educator Catherine Beecher, who pioneered equal educational rights for women, also pioneered the development of home economics as an integral part of the American primary and secondary school curriculum. “Women,” she argued, “are not trained for their profession” as mothers and teachers of their young. Therefore, she concluded, the surest way for women to influence national affairs was to recognize the “natural differences” between man and woman, cede the political arena to men and become influential as skilled family managers.
To raise motherhood to a professional level, Beecher wrote what was, in effect, the first book on home economics, A Treatise on Domestic Economy for the Use of Young Ladies at Home and at School. Published in 1841, the book was an immediate success and became the most important and widely read book of its kind. It was unique in that it was the first book ever to detail in a single volume every aspect of domestic life, including home construction and maintenance, cleaning, gardening, infant and child care, cooking, diet, health and hygiene, the fundamentals of first aid, nursing and healing the sick and all other responsibilities for keeping the family alive and well. The book offered complete explanations of all bodily functions and a myriad of suggestions on “the management of young children.” It even included plans for a system of hot and cold running water and other innovations that represented the beginnings of household automation. Few homes did not depend on her book, and few communities did not welcome Beecher to lecture as an authority on home management and the role of women in American society.
With the evolution of the public school movement just before and after the Civil War, sewing and cooking were introduced as required courses for girls in public schools, and by 1880, with Beecher’s book as a standard text, home economics appeared as a recognized course at public land-grant colleges. In 1914, Congress enacted the SMITH-LEVER ACT to subsidize adult education programs in agriculture and home economics, and in 1917 Congress enacted the SMITH-HUGHES ACT to support agriculture, home economics and industrial education below the college level. After World War II and with the expanding role of women beyond the domestic arts, the home economics curriculum broadened to include the complex elements of home and family management and the professional aspects of the field outside the home.
Although elements of home economics are taught throughout the elementary school years, it does not appear as a formal, independent subject until the middle school and high school years. Usually unavailable in private schools, home economics courses remain under somewhat of an academic cloud because of their inclusion in the undemanding general education curriculum, which focuses on nonacademic self-improvement courses and produces more than two-thirds of America’s high school drop-outs. Because of its broad nature, home economics can limit its scope or offer in-depth studies of complex topics. In the general education track of many comprehensive high schools home economics is seldom more than a superficial and entertaining survey of consumerism, housekeeping, personal hygiene, human sexuality, child rearing and pop psychology. Many students admittedly take “home ec” in such schools to obtain “an easy grade.” For that reason, perhaps, the number of boys taking elective home economics courses has soared in recent years, from 4.2% in 1968 to 41.5% in 1992. Another reason for increased male enrollment, however, has been the “degenderizing” of the subject with new names such as “Family Communications Skills,” “Work and Family Studies,” “Life-Management Education” and “Family and Consumer Sciences.”
In contrast to general education, home economics courses at many vocational and comprehensive high schools are complex preprofessional or college preparatory courses for both boys and girls planning careers in home economics or further study at the college and even the graduate school level. At the two-year or four-year college level, home economics courses provide preprofessional training in a wide variety of occupations, such as fashion or interior design, catering, institutional management, child development, dietetics, nutrition, cooking, and home economics teaching.